04 September 2014

Poetry Thursday - Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne

Reading Donne (via)
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.
And poppies or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swellst thou then?
  One short sleep past, we wake eternally
  And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

There are 19 "holy sonnets", also known as the Divine Meditations or Divine Sonnets. They were published two years after Donne's death, but circulated in manuscript during his lifetime. Donne suffered a combination of physical, emotional, and financial hardships during 1609-10, when the poems are believed to have been written and when Donne was converting from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism. In these works he addresses religious themes of mortality, divine judgment, divine love, and humble penance while reflecting deeply personal anxieties.

John Donne (1572-1631) is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets.  An important theme in his poetry is the idea of true religion, something that he spent much time considering. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic and love poems. 

Despite his great education (Oxford, Cambridge, and Lincoln's Inn) and poetic talents, Donne lived in poverty for several years, relying heavily on wealthy friends (says Wikipedia). He spent much of the money he inherited during and after his education on womanising, literature, pastimes, and travel. In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, with whom he had twelve children [a marriage that ruined the diplomatic career he seemed to be heading for]. In 1615, he became an Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Anglican orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

This is one of the ten sonnets I made efforts to memorise as part of a project during the Camberwell book arts course. It was the sonnet I found most difficult to understand, and having revisited - and re-memorised - it, I still find a few sticking-points. Some lines seem very long ... but turn out to have only 10 syllables. Some words don't sit with their neighbours in an easy way, not to a modern ear at least - "from rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, much pleasure"  - as Wikipedia says, "Donne's style is characterised by abrupt openings and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations."

During the book project, I didn't investigate the history of the poem, or the life of the author, but I did stitch it out, syllable by syllable, rather like these others (they were then subjected to rubbing with graphite) -
 This, and the spacing that represented punctuation, was supposed to help with the memorisation - but I'm not sure it did! The flow of the words is what's important - and I think that saying it aloud, or writing it out, also helps.


Uta Lenk said...

Hi Margret - what an interestin idea of graphing the sonnet! Are you going to follow up on that?
For the memorizing: have you tried doing that while you are walking or doing some other kind of physical movement? That is supposed to help - the physical rhythm somehow with the verbal, better connections/wiring in the brain...
I once had a project when I was trying to learn all the Shakespeare sonnets by heart. I did that while riding my bike to work, talking aloud (nobody could hear me, it was a path along the river and through a park.) At one point I actually could do about 60 of them. Then I moved house, had a much shorter ride and somehow the project faltered. But I can still do some of them and have sort of revitalized it by trying to reactivate others I knew before.
Looking forward to seeing more of what you do with sonnet syllabization (?)!

JAQUINTA said...

I find I really do have to say all poetry out loud to get the sense of it
- the last two lines of the sonnet are the most effective and having grasped the meaning of those I find myself going back to re-read it several times.